Your Future Truck or SUV May Have a Ford-Toyota Hybrid Drivetrain

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What’s your chief gripe about trucks and sport utility vehicles? Okay, after the part where their engines sound like a washing machine played through a distortion pedal. Right: fuel efficiency. The solution? Buy hybrid (if you can swallow the premium price, that is) where you’ll average, if not impressively, somewhere in the low 20s as miles per gallon go. Several companies offer hybrid truck and SUV models today, including Ford and Toyota.

So the announcement by Ford Motor Company and Toyota that they’ll co-develop advanced, lower cost gas-electric hybrid fuel systems for future light trucks and SUVs isn’t news because hybrids-in-larger-vehicles is new, conceptually speaking, but because Ford and Toyota say they’ll hold hands to make it so.

(PHOTOS: New Hybrid Cars for 2011)

According to Ford and Toyota, they’ve signed a memorandum of understanding—Wikipedia says that’s a more formal (and less gender-exclusive) “gentlemen’s agreement”—to proceed on joint product development. A formal agreement’s expected next year.

But what exactly would a “new advanced hybrid system for light trucks and SUVs” entail? According to the press statement, the two companies intend the new hybrid powertrain (specifically, the electric hybrid portions of the powertrain) to “bring the full hybrid experience of greater fuel efficiency to a new group of truck and SUV customers without compromising the capability they require in their vehicles.” Just speculating here, but since the old class is already snapping up hybrid trucks and SUVs aplenty, it sounds like Ford/Toyota (Foryota!) is looking to convert skeptics and naysayers (like me) who wouldn’t touch a low-20s-mpg vehicle if handed one gratis. That means the new engines will have to offer significantly better fuel efficiency, without nerfing this class of vehicles’ raison d’être, i.e. size, space and power.

[Update: A Ford rep emailed to clarify the powertrain’s relationship to the eventual production engines, stating: “We’re not developing a hybrid ‘engine’ together. We’re planning to develop a hybrid powertrain system, so the components that make up the electric ‘hybrid’ part of powertrain, which each company would then couple to their own internal combustion engines.”]

We know that under the MOU, Toyota and Ford are pledging to “bring the best of their independently developed hybrid powertrain technology and knowledge to a new co-developed hybrid system, which will be used in rear-wheel-drive light trucks arriving later this decade.” Later this decade meaning the one that just began not eight months ago, so presumably not soon, seeing as they won’t even formalize the agreement until sometime 2012.

And just to be sure, this isn’t an agreement to develop Ford/Toyota vehicles, only powertrains. Think of it like the old PowerPC chip tripartite coalition, in which Apple, IBM and Motorola jointly developed a cutting-edge RISC-based computer processing architecture.

The other bit of news involves both companies working together to advance “telematics platform standards.” That’s fancy-speak for “telecommunications and informatics,” which is further highfalutin-speak for a vehicle’s navigation and feedback system. Ford/Toyota say they’re looking to deliver a “safer, more secure and more convenient in-car experience” for the backend of next-gen (and probably Internet-connected) navigation and related information systems. As with the engine, the telematics stuff will still be integrated uniquely by each company.

30 to 40 mile per gallon light trucks and SUVs coming this side of 2020? We can always hope.

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Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.